Sunday, 27 August 2017

The Girl Who Remembered Everything

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 27 August 2017


Oh, the ripples that were created when the rights for Felicia Yap's debut novel, Yesterday, were fought for at a pre-London Book Fair auction last year. I was sure some were on tenterhooks, waiting to see for themselves if the publisher's bet was worth it.

To an extent, it lives up to the hype.

Yap's high-concept thriller takes place in a world where everyone's long-term memory stops working when they're 18, after which they fall into two categories: "Monos" can only remember the past 24 hours, while "Duos" can recall twice as much.

This gives rise to a social hierarchy based on one's memory capacity. Only Duos can hold higher positions, and mixed marriages are frowned upon. There's tension between the two classes.

Electronic devices called iDiaries allow people from the two classes to live as normal a life as possible. The result is a world where one's history after a certain age is kept in a machine, along with everything else: phone numbers, addresses and important dates. Not too different from our universe.

However, the focus of the novel is a murder mystery, set in an alternate England. The story kicks off with someone called Sophia Ayling furiously ranting at and vowing vengeance against someone. She also claims that, unlike everyone else, she remembers everything about her past, making her an elephant among goldfish.

A little while later, we learn that Sophia's the murder victim. Could her death be related to her condition?

On the case is Inspector Hans Richardson who has a tendency to colour outside the lines set by the rule books — yes, they have a textbook for cops. The trail leads him to Mark Evans, a Duo who's a successful novelist and rising star in local politics. The dead woman is revealed to be Mark's mistress, which threatens his literary and political ambitions and his marriage to his Mono wife Claire.

The plot unfolds through the viewpoints of Mark, Claire and Inspector Richardson, along with the angry, bitter iDiary entries of Sophia Ayling. Other crumbs of information — some in the form of news reports, document excerpts and quotes — serve as intermissions and additional clues, challenging the readers to find the culprit first (good luck with that).

Soon, we learn that Mark isn't the only one with secrets to hide. Turns out the inspector with the vaguely European-sounding name is a Mono masquerading as a Duo — which means he's not supposed to hold his rank. He also has less than 24 hours to crack the case before his mind resets, while struggling to hide his true nature from others.

As a whodunit, Yesterday ticks all the boxes. It's paced just right, the plot is focused and the writing is technically solid. Pieces of the puzzle fall into their places at the right time, as if in a tightly choreographed dance sequence.

Not all of it is gloomy, sordid and gory. A few nuggets of humour keep the novel from descending into Scandi-noir levels of cheerlessness. There are nods to real-world tech and companies. The iDiary, for instance, is of course invented by an alt-universe Apple.

We are told, in an intermission, that Mark wrote a "high-concept" novel about our world, which a disgruntled reader pooh-poohs as "far-fetched" and "ridiculous" in a letter to a newspaper — is Yap ribbing her own work here, saving nit-pickers the trouble?

Overall, one is hard-pressed to find something substantial about the novel to critique, beyond what it is ostensibly crafted for. Not to say that it's flawless.

The little asides tend to distract our attention from the crime. The faults in our memories when it comes to recording our pasts and shaping our identities, whether technology can or should compensate... never mind all that. Why is Sophia dead and who killed her?

Also, the potential of the goldfish memory as an obstacle against a dogged investigator is not fully realised here. Some might feel the inspector and his case were never in any danger, as the victim's iDiary is on hand to move his investigation (and the story) along.

What sticks out the most is how little of this world, particularly this quirk of its denizens, is explored. How did this memory ceiling come to be? Does it serve a purpose other than covering up probable plot holes?

Perhaps that's why we sense that this might not be the last we see of the world of Yesterday. The ending leaves a metaphorical door ajar, teasing of more to come.

And more might be on the way, taking the predictable route of the trilogy, with subsequent titles such as Today and Tomorrow. Unlike the twists in Yap's promising debut, many of us probably saw that coming.



Yesterday
Felicia Yap
Mulholland Books
400 pages
Fiction
ISBN: 978-0-316-46525-0

Monday, 21 August 2017

Book Marks: Books In Greece, Tweets Of Trump

"Independent publishing house Opera has been in business on Koletti Street in the downtown Athens district of Exarchia since 1996. Over the past seven years, proprietor Giorgos Myresiotis has seen 13 small publishers and book stores along this side street either relocate or go out of business." The Greek economic crisis has, unsurprisingly, hit bookshops hard. But it might not just be the economy.

Meanwhile, refugees stuck in Greece are getting some relief in the form of books:

...at least two separate initiatives have emerged to help refugees fill the long hours of their day.

One of them is Echo Refugee Library — a minivan fitted with shelves carrying over 1,000 books that does a weekly round of refugee camps in the greater Athens area, plus poorer districts of the capital where many refugees live in UN-rented flats.

...In another part of the city centre, a similar initiative draws Syrian and Afghan refugees to the offices of We Need Books, a volunteer group formed last year that also gives language classes in Arabic and French.



"Shannon Wheeler has spent much of this year poring over thousands of President Trump's tweets, and just when he believes he's lost the ability to be shocked, @realDonaldTrump hits a fresh nerve. 'I keep thinking I've been inoculated,' says Wheeler, an Oregon-based cartoonist, 'but then I read something new that [hits] like an adrenaline shot to the hypothalamus.'

"The fruits of Wheeler's creative endurance will go on display Tuesday, when the publisher Top Shelf releases his book 'Sh*t My President Says: The Illustrated Tweets of Donald J. Trump.'"



"Launched at [the Malaysian Book Publishing Association Fair], [Muhammad] Fatrim’s sequel Asrama 2 sold faster than the chicken burger from the food trucks downstairs. Unable to put a figure on it, Fatrim was jubilant." This piece on the Mabopa book fair quickly became a piece about Fixi and its outing at the Mapoba book fair, because.

But someone else feels different. This article is in Malay, but it highlights the sad state of Malaysia's book industry. The writer's focus appears to be on the "narcissism" of writers and agencies in writing and publishing what they want, not caring about the market or exploring avenues beyond what they find comfortable. She also seems to be issuing a call for the industry players to unite and free the country's increasingly ailing book industry. Will it be heeded?


Plus:

  • "Giving someone a book is like giving someone a piece of your soul. You may not have written it, but in reading it and experiencing it, a book has become a part of you. Passing it onto someone else is, in a way, like passing on that piece of yourself, too. Whether it be your interests, your dreams, your fears, your opinions, or your inspirations, you are giving someone so much more than paper and ink when you give them a book." That's one way to reorganise and declutter one's bookshelf.
  • The Russian publisher for American fantasy writer Victoria Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy censored a romantic LGBT scene in the second book and, of course, people are not happy, including the author.
  • Still missing Michiko Kakutani? here's a New York Magazine article to snack on while you digest the fact tat she won't be limning any book plots any time soon. Also: "This week she signed a multiple-book deal with Crown's Tim Duggan Books. The first book, published next year, will be a controversial political book of her own, a cultural history of 'alternative facts' titled The Death of Truth." OMG, this is ... hold on, do I hear knives being sharpened?
  • A book that's coming out will reveal the alleged face of Banksy, the mysterious artist whose identity may have already been revealed, but people will not be allowed to share those images. How will they enforce that?
  • "...a Delhi court issued an injunction restraining the sale of a book on yoga guru Ramdev, after he alleged that its contents were defamatory. Written by Priyanka Pathak-Narain and published by Juggernaut, the book traces the early days and rapid rise of Ramdev, now the brand ambassador of the Rs 10,000 crore Patanjali group. The court passed the order ex-parte, that is, without hearing the publisher."
  • The errors in a book about a South African media personality is stirring a teacup storm in the country. What I found a little puzzling is how most of the online articles I'd read - all apparently from South Africa - just mention her name, as if expecting audiences to know who she is and what she does for a living.
  • "Increasingly, book publicists are working to get new hardcovers into celebrities' hands — not in hopes of a film option but a simple tweet, Instagram photo or Facebook post. These little endorsements can reach a much larger audience than an interview with the author on a popular television show or a rave review in a major newspaper. 'In previous times, you would have the Oprah or Daily Show bump,” says Todd Doughty, the director of publicity at Doubleday. “Now you have the Reese Witherspoon bump from Instagram.'" Y'know, this ain't so far-fetched. #Bookstagram is a thing.
  • "Amazon has rejected a Kiwi author's advertisement for her debut novel, stating the cover and content is too provocative. The strange thing is, one of web giant's own companies designed it." So what was offensive about the cover? "The cover features a woman's bare chin, neck and upper chest, with a hint of visible cleavage." O~kay.
  • This ad might have more than 600 words, but I wouldn't call it an article. But what it apparently sells: an app that reads some text and tells you who wrote it?

Monday, 14 August 2017

Book Marks: Romance, Censorship, Etc.

"What does a woman want?" Washington Post books section editor Ron Charles asks. "If you’re in publishing, this is not an idle — or sexist — question. As Ian McEwan said more than 10 years ago, 'When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.'"

Charles furthers his case against that "special degree of fervent condescension" reserved for romance novels in that short piece; the snobs have gotten the genre and its fans wrong.

Some appear to be catching on, judging from the next article:

"The case of a male author using a female pseudonym to write fiction was relatively unheard of when Tania Carver emerged, but the explosion of female-oriented crime fiction in the last five years has led to an increasing number of male authors adopting gender-neutral names to publish their work."

It wasn't too long ago that female novelists wrote under male pseudonyms to make themselves read. Are we seeing the completion of a circle?

Well, if anyone is interested in spinning the next big hit in romance, here's how pros churn out the necessary daily word count.



When Sonny Liew's graphic novel won several Eisner awards, Singapore's "National Arts Council (NAC) put out a carefully-worded congratulatory statement two days later, without specifically referring to Liew’s artistic work," Kirsten Han noted in Asia Times.

"The hesitation was perhaps understandable. The council had earlier withdrawn a S$8,000 (US$5,900) publishing grant for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye just ahead of its launch in 2015, reasoning that its content 'potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy' of the government.

"The revocation, which ironically helped to catapult the graphic novel into the public eye, now looks even more short-sighted with the novel’s international acclaim."



"...Because books are only as influential as long as people who read them don't ask questions, or can't tell the difference between fiction and reality. Thus, why should the government fear access to books and any media items that it deems unworthy?" Hafidz Baharom asks in The Sun.

"If people are easily confused, is it not the role of the public, the government and academicians to publish their books to counter it, rather than stop people from reading a separate point of view? In other words, shouldn't more books be the answer to create a learned society, rather than a ban?"


Plus:

  • "The greatest obstacle to making work that last does not lie outside us. It does not depend on getting the right lucky breaks, cultivating the right relationships, or sidestepping the right pitfalls. All of that matters, but the greatest obstacle lies within. Namely, our excuses, our egos, and our timelines."
  • So Facebook's chatbots apparently invented a non-human language and talked to each other in it. But it's not the first time that trouble reared its head when it comes to cryptic languages.
  • The history of colouring books could go as far back as HOW MANY YEARS? "An early variation on coloring books could be the illustrations for two volumes of the very long descriptive poem Poly-Olbion by Michael Drayton, published in 1612 and 1622..."
  • A handy listicle (in case you don't have one) of independent publishers and bookstores in Malaysia. It was too short, so they came up with a second one.
  • A Twitter drama erupted over a potentially problematic YA novel and I'm here, too blasé to roll my eyes. Maybe, judge it after you read it?
  • "And while today they might just be a function of lazy p.r., there was a time, not too long ago, when who's who lists were a more curated experience. In the United Kingdom, that amounted to a 250-page reference book that debuted in 1849 and is still published today, aspiring to be a compendium 'of living noteworthy and influential individuals, from all walks of life, worldwide.'"
  • I had it all mapped out: After years of sacrifice and honing my craft, I would make my triumphant debut, with a book that might not become a bestseller but that'd be respected for its stunning originality and insight into the human condition. Instead, my first book was The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook. Yes, that Captain Jack Sparrow.
  • A dispatch from "The Incredible Shrinking BookExpo" of 2017 from an indie publisher. "Obviously it wasn't the intention of the organizers of BookExpo to shrink the show, nor can we blame the Big Five, but the whole thing was noticeably small. This is hearsay and I couldn't confirm it, but an industry insider told me that eight years ago BEA's floor space was 600,000 square feet (including booths, rights, stages, programming, etc.) and that this year it was 98,000. One-sixth. I certainly felt it. What's different?"
  • "Iran's intelligence agency, Ettela'at, has banned [the] publication of a Kurdish language instruction book. The book's authors, in Razawe Khorasan province, announced that they, the publisher, sellers, and readers have faced threats from the province's security forces. ...Provincial officials said the Latin alphabet had been used by 'terrorist groups' and it was not in the benefit of the Islamic Republic of Iran to allow the publication of books written in the Latin alphabet."
  • "When Keith Houghton bought his four-bedroom detached house earlier this year, he did a rare thing for an author: he paid cash, with earnings from his books. Keith who, you may ask? Houghton is one of a handful of so-called 'hidden' bestsellers: his self-published crime thrillers are ebooks, sales of which are not monitored by the UK's official book charts (if they don't have ISBNs, which self-published titles often don't)."

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Book Marks: Singapore, Putrajaya, And Kakutani Bows Out

"In a written response to a question from Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (MP) Dennis Tan on why the NAC withdrew its funding for Jeremy Tiang’s book, [Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu] said: 'The project did not meet the funding requirements mutually agreed upon as the content in the book deviated from the original proposal.'" I swear, somebody in Singapore's National Arts Council is helping these books. And why is it ANOTHER book by Epigram? Are they the only game in town these days?

Meanwhile, Singapore's "noted literary figure" Gwee Li Sui talks about "the culture of reading, censorship, arts funding and public discourse on controversial issues". Expect a mention of Sonny Liew's multiple Eisner Award-winning The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

Oh, and is another star rising? Singaporean Rachel Heng's debut novel, a "literary science-fiction work tentatively titled Suicide Club", was "acquired in auction by Sceptre, the literary imprint of British publishing house Hodder & Stoughton, and by publisher Henry Holt & Co in the US," according to the Straits Times.



At home, the Home Ministry has banned Breaking the Silence: Voices of a Moderation Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, a book by pro-moderation group G25, "purportedly for being prejudicial to public order." Other books in the ministry's recent banning spree includes From Majapahit to Putrajaya: Searching for Another Malaysia by academic Farish A. Noor and something called Saucy Seaside Postcards.



Oh wow, THIS is news:

"[Michiko] Kakutani's departure [from The New York Times] will instantly change the shape of the publishing world. She wielded the paper's power with remarkable confidence and abandon. During the course of her nearly 40 years at the Times (she joined as a reporter in 1979, before switching to criticism in 1983), Kakutani, 62, helped make the careers of many literary namebrands, from George Saunders, Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen, to Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, and others."

Meanwhile, Megan Garber in The Atlantic reflects on the career of the "one-woman kamikaze".

I don't agree with all her views but she writes good. Book criticism will be duller without her.



"Zadie Smith has this to say about being a writer: 'Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.'

"That is true. But you learn the points of satisfaction over time – the beats where you're likely to find the joy. The act of writing itself, of forgetting your own name, forgetting to dress, or that your character of Kevin is not a real person, and you cry when you have to hurt him in your book – all that is wonderful."

Brigid Delaney, on the best lesson she learnt about writing from a bitter and angry unnamed author. I wonder who he was?


Also:

  • Author and educator Nicola Morgan argues for fairer prices for books - and against high discounts that eat into royalties. "Some purchasers will still choose to buy at super-high discount, of course. That's their right. But many, I argue, will choose to pay a fairer price when they realise the consequences. I don't mean to send anyone on a guilt-trip – it's entirely every buyer's choice. But I'd like it to be an informed choice and many readers just don't realise the next point."
  • Excluding books from goods and services tax doesn't mean the cost of publishing or buying books won't go up. In India, "the cost of book-making will go up by 10%-28% (excluding the overheads) and this will have to be paid directly by the publisher unless it is passed on to the reader, because there is no provision to claim Input Tax Credits (ITC) – taxes paid by suppliers – like in the erstwhile Value Added Tax (VAT)." But it seems sales in India are being hit by rises in parts of the publishing chain.
  • "Inuit peoples do not read and write and ingest culture the way non-Inuit Canadians do. I believe Inuit Canadians do not place a high value on the written word. Instead, we come from a culture with roots that lie within the passing on of stories orally; this is what lies within our blood and genetic memories. When I operate outside of my own circle of family and friends, I operate in a different fashion. It is not compromise. It is survival." Norma Dunning, author of Annie Muktuk and Other Stories, talks about writing from an Inuit perspective.
  • "Due to the political circumstances, [author Alana] Massey said, 'I was sort of jokingly told that any books that weren't political, dystopian, or both, weren't really selling.' Trump's Presidential win has sent a rippling effect through the book publishing world, affecting authors, booksellers, editors, agents, and publicists: In a world where reality has become stranger than fiction, actual books are no longer selling." Really, now?
  • "...never get involved with a publisher who needs your money. You want to hire an editor, a designer, or a marketing agency? It's a great idea — but you are the publisher in that situation. Revenue from sales comes to you. If someone is selling your book and paying you royalties, you do not give them your credit card number. Ever." One can't caution against money-grubbing vanity publishers too much.
  • "Trump's foul-mouthed [former] communications director [Anthony "The Mooch" Scarramucci] wrote three books full of advice that he apparently can't take himself. Maybe because it's all junk." One piece of advice goes, "Keep your negative emotions to yourself." And this guy got hired?